Most privacy-minded Internet users are aware that VPNs are powerful tools for protecting your anonymity and online security.
Yet, what if VPNs could do something even more democratizing than just ensuring your rights to free speech and privacy? What if VPNs could be the grassroots tool that activists and ordinary citizens use to restore net neutrality?
What Is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality refers to the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all content providers equally— meaning there should be no upcharge for certain types of communication, content or brand recognition, nor any deliberate slowing or “throttling” of a company’s platform.
Without the protection of net neutrality laws, ISPs could not only throttle data use, but also upcharge their customers (or content providers) to visit or use the most popular streaming and social media websites.
Reports of ISPs charging for higher data caps can be found in many online forums, and although this hasn’t become a runaway problem for most users, the changing landscape of federal regulation could allow for it in the future.
Why Would ISPs Throttle Connection Speeds?
ISPs will throttle your data for one of two related reasons, known as “service tiering”:
(a). If your ISP offers their own social media or streaming services, they want to drive more customers to their services (and discourage use of competitor sites).
(b). If your ISP doesn’t have its own native content services, it most likely negotiates with third party companies, giving them “pay-to-play” kickbacks— in other words, if you visit a website who doesn’t bribe your ISP, your connection speed will be slowed down.
Can’t the Federal Government Prevent This?
The FCC has had a long and complicated history of regulations for telecommunications and information providers.
The Internet has rapidly evolved since the FCC first started to intercede on the behalf of consumers during the Bush and Obama presidencies. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation discusses:
“In 2010, the FCC attempted to combat [net neutrality] threats with a set of Open Internet rules. In 2014, after a legal challenge from Verizon, those rules were overturned, and the FCC set about drafting a new set of rules better suited to the challenge.”
By 2015, the FCC had reclassified ISPs not as mere “information providers” but as a telecommunications public utility, which allowed for stricter control to protect citizens from corporate greed. Regulations under this new and more legally-robust “Open Internet Order” protected equal access to every website, regardless of the content provided or a content company’s desire and ability to pay for faster speeds.
It also meant that the FCC would tell ISP conglomerates— who have enormous, near-monopolistic power and market share— that they can’t charge popular platforms or their customers a premium price for faster bandwidth speeds.
In other words, the FCC regulations for neutrality were put in place to make sure ISPs like AT&T would stop throttling speeds of users who reaches a certain monthly data cap for sites like Netflix, Bit Torrent or Youtube.
The Future of Net Neutrality
Unfortunately, In 2017, the FCC largely reversed the Open Internet Order, making net neutrality harder to protect. Why did the FCC remove key rules and regulations that supported net neutrality? They claimed it would free up more money for ISPs to invest in infrastructure to bring Internet access to rural areas. Yet Comcast spent LESS on infrastructure in 2018— despite net neutrality being eliminated in late 2017—so that argument doesn’t appear to hold water.
Luckily, as of early 2019, most of what we feared about the apparent end of net neutrality has not fully come to bear. Day to day, most Americans aren’t experiencing any huge, deliberate lags when visiting popular content sites. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
With FCC protections removed, it is very plausible that ISPs can gradually and discretely resume throttling speeds again.
The concerns are real enough that neutrality supporters in Congress have drafted legislation proposing the 2017 regulations be overturned and supplanted by the 2015 policies that protected Internet users. As Wired Magazine points out, “The FTC is only an enforcement agency: It can’t create new rules.” And so, we wait for Congress to do the right thing.
What Can We Do if ISPs Decide to Throttle Data?
If Congress fails to act, then we have to take the matter into our own hands. In theory, throttling comes from traditional ISPs, but what if you broke away from the pack and used a VPN provider— like the smart little rebel you are? Would it help speed things up?
In short, yes, it can be a big help.
How could a VPN help?
A VPN uses encryption to create a secure tunnel for your personal data and search history. It routes data through its servers to protect your anonymity. That means your ISP can’t tell that you’re binging all 9 seasons of The Office next month. If they can’t tell how much data you’re using, they won’t have any reason to slow down your connection speed. It’s that simple.
Experts at PC Magazine also postulated that if a powerful company like Apple were to offer its own VPN, then ISPs would be too intimidated to extort them for better connection access.
Which VPNs Are Best for Net Neutrality?
Remember that with VPNs, you want a company that has your protection in mind. That means you want a company that charges a fair subscription cost to fund its operations, rather than the “free” VPNs who make money by selling your data to anyone who wants it.
The problem with free VPNs who lack “no-logging” policies, is that they can sell data back to your ISP— who would then know how much data you are consuming.
In other words, if you use a free VPN, you won’t be able to avoid ISP throttling.
When looking for a VPN, make sure they offer the following:
- Strict no-logging policies
- Robust privacy policies
- Kill switches to disconnect you automatically if something goes wrong
- A guarantee that they won’t sell your personal data
Can’t My ISP Just Blacklist VPNs Altogether?
Fair question, but much easier said than done, from your ISP’s perspective. ISPs don’t necessarily want to spend the money and time researching which addresses and VPNs to ban (or a range of server addresses associated with a given VPN) because many governments, banks and other high-profile business customers also pay big bucks to use VPNs, and would be understandable aggravated if ISPs throttled them. Angry customers lead to boycotts, and no ISP wants to lose their subscription incomes.
There are literally billions of IP addresses available for VPNs to use (under IPv4 and IPv6), and any VPN provider worth its salt will have servers that can route through a good chunk of those at any given time.
So, if AT&T or Comcast wanted to blacklist a range of IP addresses, all your VPN would have to do is keep switching through new servers in a sort of cat-and-mouse game.
VPNs Are Our Best Bet for True Net Neutrality
At the end of the day, until Congress empowers the FCC to restore net neutrality protections, or companies like Apple start offering ISP alternatives, using a VPN is your best bet against throttled speeds and potentially higher data rates.
We as consumers and citizens need to make our voices heard through our actions. If you want to prevent your ISP from becoming a Big Brother gatekeeper of what content you can and can’t access at will, then using a good VPN remains your best option to protect your privacy and security along with unthrottled access to a free and neutral Internet.